Nearly five years after everyone else, my partner and I finally got a Wii. I’m not a gamer, though I will destroy your entire family at boxing (well, unless your family includes my pint-size neighbor). But if I can marinate in my privilege for a minute, using the Wii for Netflix Instant is pretty awesome. Granted, I’ve been streaming stuff on my laptop for some time, but projecting it onto the living room TV is so nice (I also don’t have to worry about my television overheating and shutting down). I haven’t had cable since 2005, so being able to watch Louie or Now and Then or Exit Through the Gift Shop or season two of Parks and Recreation (season three begins January 20!!!) whenever is beyond luxurious. At some point I’ll watch that Harry Nilsson documentary, though I hope locals forked over $2 to see it at the Drafthouse during this week’s Music Mondays screening. Immersion with this gadget kind of kept me from writing, actually. When you’re battling a wicked case of cedar fever and it’s dark by 5, why not cuddle up on the couch to an entire season of Man v. Food?
I’ve also been pruning my queue, which I always hold at capacity. Capturing the Friedmans took up space for some time and now it’s haunting my dreams. loudQUIETloud, Steven Cantor and Matthew Galkin’s documentary about the Pixies, has clogged up my queue since late 2006. I was pretty “meh” about seeing it, but thought it’d be good to watch while I was playing my guitar.
I’m kind of prejudiced against this band. I acknowledge their greatness and like many of their songs. I’ll stand by “Debaser” and “River Euphrates.” The first Pixies song I heard was “Isla de Encanta,” which I originally encountered during the closing credits of Married to the Mob, one of my mom’s favorite movies. Since I came of age in the 90s, songs like “Gigantic,” “Here Comes Your Man,” and “Monkey Gone to Heaven” were modern rock retro cut staples. Most everyone knows Fight Club ends with ‘Where Is My Mind?” And I’ll always remember accompanying an old roommate to a disconcerting wardrobe fitting for a drag show at the clothing designer’s studio apartment, where she was blasting Pixies songs in tribute to a friend who just died of an overdose.
I probably take them for granted because bands like Nirvana made the band’s singular dynamic structure (signposted in the documentary’s title) so commonplace. Mainly I just get tired of Frank Black’s petulant genius routine and project contempt onto his rabid fan base, who I always imagine as sweaty white dudes who think they’re better than you because they read science fiction. Plus, Kurt was right. Bassist Kim Deal should have written more songs for the Pixies. Since Black tightened his grip on the band as they continued, she left and formed the Breeders with her twin sister Kelley, which I got to first and happen to like more. Talk about a band with pop hooks and dynamic tension.
I actually don’t have too much to say about this one, as it’s a pretty straightforward piece about the band reuniting in 2004, paving the tour route for dozens of other indie bands who cashed in on their prestige with reunions throughout the decade (though I think Pavement made it safe for nostalgia acts to make cameos on reality TV). Some noteworthy parts for me are how Deal commits to sobriety, drummer/magician/puka shell enthusiast David Lovering struggles to do so, Deal’s sister follows the band around with a camera, Black gets jealous that the twins are holed up in the bus writing songs for another Breeders’ record, and secret weapon lead guitarist Joey Santiago is too grown for any nonsense.
However, a few scenes make this documentary worth viewing for feminist music geeks. At one point, the band encounters a superfan bass player. She became enamored with the group after reading Louisa Luna’s Brave New Girl, a YA novel about a teenage girl who’s obsessed with the band. The fan gives her copy to Deal, who studies the excerpts about her band flagged with green highlighter. The documentary closes with this girl, whose band covers “Monkey Gone to Heaven” during the closing credits. They’re fleeting but effective moments that demonstrate the bond shared between musician and fan, and how a woman with an instrument and a girl inspired by her can be a mutually beneficial connection.
Earlier this week, I went to Music Monday at the Drafthouse. This week’s offering was David Bowie’s 1973 concert feature, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, which shows the legendary conclusion of the artist’s breakout tour which went out with a bang at the Hammersmith Odeon. It was directed by D.A. Pennebaker who Dylanologists (snicker) might revere for shooting Don’t Look Back and synth-pop enthusiasts the world over can credit for capturing Depeche Mode’s 1988 Rose Bowl performance in 101. Stardust is a valueable historical document of the artist, his band (particularly guitarist Mick Ronson), and the last days of glam rock, a subgenre that would capture the imaginations of a generation of boys and girls on both sides of the pond.
While I think Pennebaker and his film crew constructed a few minor but unfortunate heterosexist images here (i.e.: showing teenage female fans in a clear state of religious/sexual ecstacy but not pointing the camera at any of the boys that assuredly were in attendance; downplaying the sexual dynamic between Bowie and Ronson’s on-stage interplay by framing Ronson’s extensive solos as a chance for Bowie to change costumes with the help of several female personnel), it cannot be denied that Bowie is a helluva entertainer and an assured diva candidate.
His interest in cultural provocation and reinvention impacted Madonna, who inducted the purposely absent icon into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996. His androgynous look and campy performance style paved the way for like-minded male artists like Prince and Adam Lambert, the latter of whom is apparently too hot for prime time because his orientation has turned queer subtext into text. And finally, his theatrically nasal voice and lyrical wordplay have influenced indie rock singer-songwriters like Dan Bejar of Destroyer to turn odes to girls and books into labrynthine pop.
Oh, and let’s not forget Bowie’s fantastic turn on Extras. I know Andy Millman won’t.
But all of this means nothing, as I’m going to be focusing on Lydia Lunch, a woman who probably has no use for Bowie or any of his accolades. Fitting in a way, as she’d probably have even less use for being called a diva. While I have no problem declaring her one anyway, I’m also pretty sure she’d tell me to fuck off.
For those unfamiliar, Lunch made her mark fronting no wave group Teenage Jesus and the Jerks. Like many of that scene (who’d probably even hate to be referred to as such), this band constantly deconstructed what bands were, what songs were, what music was. Nonetheless, they made an upsetting, exciting scrawl.
And Lunch became imfamous for her confrontational vocal and performance style, something she also brings into her art and written work. Lunch doesn’t sing songs, create installations, make paintings, and write essays and poems so much as disembowel salf-fashioned, sometimes hilarious psychodramas about sex, abuse, death, drugs, and the grotesque implications of image construction. And filth. Always filth.
Acerbic and frequently bored, she’s a delightful addition to any music documentary. In fact, she practically saves 2004’s Kill Your Idols, Scott Crary’s otherwise messy attempt to outline the New York downtown scene from the proto-punk offerings of The Velvet Underground and Suicide to the ascendance of then-up-and-coming acts like The Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Liars. Here, she tells her version of the unhistoricizable subgenre that is no wave and strongly endorses against band formation and traditional instrumentation, suggesting kids pick up tubas instead of guitars.
Unfortunately, Crary feels the need to frame his subject in such a way that her heaving bosom is in nearly every shot, which contrasts sharply with the interview footage of Swans’ Michael Gira, which is almost entirely comprised of low-angle head shots. To further pronounce the Citizen Kane indebtedness, Gira’s shot in black and white. Lunch’s breasts apparently required color.
That said, I struggle with Lunch in ways akin to how I struggle with Patti Smith.
On the surface, they’re very similar. They’re both northeastern female underground music-art world figures who made their names blurring filth with art with persona. They also got their start working and aligning with men, sometimes causing me to wonder if they find a particular kinship with men over women, if music historians have overemphasized their work with men, or if they want to absence gender from any discussion of their work, except when they’re making the argument themselves.
Of course, Lunch has worked with a number of women, including Exene Cervenka, Kim Gordon, and Annie Sprinkle. And both women occupy interesting cultural positions that challenge gender roles that line up perfectly with divas. While both women actually employ collaborative processes in their work, the heavy lifting of their male instrumental counterparts is often relegated to the background to emphasize their singularity.
Of course, that I’m doing much of the emphasizing along with generations of like-minded commentators should not be ignored. Instead it should be challenged in terms of how we’re perpetuating the idea that women are better suited to the iconographic role of the solo artist and not toward a further understanding of art- and media-making’s inherently collaborative process and what roles women have, or choose not to have, in it.
Of course, both women seem to like being perceived as cults of personality, which tends to be the realm of the solo artist. Many women have followed, and continue to follow, in this path. We need to keep asking why. I’d like to start by offering up this question: could there ever be a collective of divas working together on a musical project?
Perhaps Lunch and Smith’s configuration as solo artists has something to do with their iffy relationships to feminism (the former instead aligning herself with humanism when she feels its necessary to align with any isms; the latter out-right dismissing feminism).
But one thing I respect about Lunch is her stubborn resolve not to be considered a historical figure. Or an artist. Or a musician. Or a poet. Or a writer. Or a woman sometimes and a human almost never. Because to her, the categorization that inevitably comes from creating or complying with the instation of identity markers create limits on people. Thus, she also resists the entire process of canonization. So I know she’d reject the impetus behind this blog’s assessment of the cultural import behind her personae and body of work.
But canonize I will because, as a feminist, I feel like we have to create a space where we value these sorts of contributions from women and girls. We should also contend the complexities of our art and its political implications. Feminism is tricky and slippery, and most exciting to me when it kind of hurts my head. So is the work of valueable, smart women who will wrestle free from any categorization. Even if I think they’re divas. Even if they think the entire construct (or any construct) is bullshit.
One of the gifts that keeps on giving is Music Mondays at the Alamo Drafthouse. It is one of my favorite things about Austin. Seriously — affordable prices for classic and often rare, out-of-print, or staff-made movies and documentaries about all kinds of music? Can’t beat it.
And have they ever got a treat for you on July 20 (a treat for me as well, as it’s a week before my birthday). That is when they will be showing Björk’s Voltaïc: The Volta Tour Live in Reykjavic and Paris. Tix haven’t gone on sale yet, but keep your eye on it. This one will probably sell out pretty quick. If you don’t live in ATX, here’s a list of places it is playing. You can also suggest a venue if your city isn’t on the itinerary.
And to get yourself amped for the screening, you can also listen to the CD here.